BBC Proms reviews

Prom 29 review – the promise of historically informed performance into which reality intruded

6 August 2023

Dunedin Consort playing Mozart and Bach(s) was everything to look forward to, but the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall intervened.

Prom 29

Dunedin Consort (Photo: Sisi Burn)

Performances of Early Music at the Proms can be tricky, as the shape and size of the Royal Albert Hall can take the sound of small, precise ensembles and produce either a muffled, diffuse result, or send it out along alternating ‘corridors’ of very directional focus. In past years, performances of Early Music have been taken elsewhere (Cadogan Hall, for example), where the acoustic is more forgiving, but this year, the ‘out of Hall’ budget is being spent on regional concerts, and groups such as Dunedin Consort are left to struggle along in the vast 1871 Kensington bathroom.

John Butt, the Dunedin Consort’s director, is a respected academic and researcher of performance practice in the field, and his choice of forces for Sunday morning’s concert of works by J. S. and C. P. E. Bach and Mozart might have had a historically informed basis, but it did not serve the audience (or, at any rate, this listener seated in the stalls) well at all. The string section (particularly violins) was unexpectedly large, and its wash of sound seemed to coat everything in glue. J. S. Bach’s Sinfonia in D major  – a Sinfonia in search of a cantata – is a charming work, its busy enthusiasm and violin obbligato making it almost the first movement of a lost violin concerto, and it’s a perfect concert opener. You could see the members of the consort making all the right historically informed moves, and, although the punch of trumpets and timps came through, everything else became a miasma of unfocused sound. Huw Daniel’s violin solo was inaudible for much of the time, completely swamped by the array of violins behind him.

J. S. Bach’s Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied is, arguably, the most ebullient of his motets, and its double-choir scoring makes for some glorious exchanges of contrapuntal material. It was the young Mozart, on a visit to Leipzig in 1789, who, while praising the motet, suggested the addition of an orchestra, and given the Mozart item later in the programme, it seemed an appropriate connection to make to perform the piece with string accompaniment rather than just the usual continuo. Not, as it turned out, an acoustically sound decision. The 40 strong choir did their best from their position behind the instruments, and clarity of phrasing, under Butt’s direction, was obvious. The central movement where the aria and chorale are sung by different choirs fared the best, as the tempo was slower, and the contrapuntal material became more discrete, but the busier, outer movements had none of the vocal zip and sparkle that the continuo-only versions have, as the strings (even though slightly reduced in number) still somehow managed to subtract from the sound by removing the cutting edge from the vocal production, their siting between singers and audience forming a diffusion filter.

“…groups such as Dunedin Consort are left to struggle along in the vast 1871 Kensington bathroom”

Prom 29

Jess Dandy, John Butt & Dunedin Consort (Photo: Sisi Burn)

C. P. E. Bach’s Heilig ist Gott is a quirky work that brings to mind the cori spezzati works of a century earlier. The opening arietta for alto was sung by the peerless contralto Jess Dandy, whose rich tones and wonderfully solid chest voice made for one of the best moments in the concert. The chorus and instruments were split into ‘angels’ and ‘people’, the former placed on the steps at the back of the stage. Here – because of the split – we got more clarity, and the dynamic difference between the pianissimo angelic chorus and the fuller sound of the latter was artfully contrasted to deliver a much more satisfactory listening experience.

When a performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor is billed as ‘newly completed’ (in this case by Clemens Kemme) one wonders whether this might involve a construction of the missing movements. This turned out not to be the case, as Kemme’s version (receiving its first Proms performance) followed in the footsteps of others, simply rearranging Mozart’s material for the existing movements in a slightly different way.

Nonetheless, what ensued was a decent account, especially from the soloists. Again, the orchestral forces dominated, such that the choir sounded overwhelmed by the instruments (particularly the strings), and movements such as the rhythmically mannered Qui tollis lost much of their vocal spit and dynamism; the soloists’ positioning in front of the instruments granted them, however, more acoustic traction. Lucy Crowe’s ‘Christe’ section of the Kyrie allowed her (with a much quieter orchestral underscoring) to demonstrate her gloriously sweet and powerful instrument, and her ‘Domine Deus’ duet with Nardus Williams (whose voice matches Crowe’s perfectly, and whose ‘Laudamus te’ was also given a charmingly nuanced account) was a joy – particularly the athletic ‘funicular’ section where they swap high and low notes. The two were joined by tenor Benjamin Hulett for the ‘Quoniam’ trio and then by Robert Davies for the ‘Benedictus’ quartet, both of which further demonstrated an excellent choice of voices for blend. Sadly, though, the most exquisite solo in the piece, ‘Et incarnatus’ (here sung by Lucy Crowe) fell victim once again to the instrumental layout. This is supposed to be a delicate quartet of soprano, flute, oboe and bassoon, each one (especially in the lengthy cadenza) twining around the others in a display of the sort of formidable writing we usually find in Mozart’s operas. Thanks to the string section (even playing quietly) and the positioning of the obbligato instruments at the back of the orchestra, it was unbalanced, the solo instruments (and particularly the bassoon) almost lost entirely.

This is, alas, one of those Proms performances that will make better listening in its broadcast engineered form than live.

• Prom 29 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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